Mother didn’t always go to the church. She wasn’t always a Christian. Father met her in Colombia while he was hammering nails into two-by-fours in a build-a-thon church-raising mission in a jungle clearing. He flew to Colombia with fifteen men and raised three churches in three weeks. Mother brought the workers jugo de lulo. Fifteen men swirled and sniffed their juice except Father, who drank Mother’s lulo juice like a bear and smiled at her from the roof beam. She had wild black hair tied back from her face, and teeth so white Father said an angel was hiding under her tongue. He called her Angelina, although it wasn’t her name, and held her hand under the blessed beams of the first church service.
So Mother buttoned up the white satin traje de novia embroidered in bougainvillea, told her own Mama, No, the witch doctor cannot come to the ceremony, and walked head high down the aisle.
Grandmother sobbed, “Pobrecita mi hijita,” because Mother married on Sunday the seventh. Domingo 7 ni te cases ni te embarques. I was not supposed to know this, but I heard Mother tell the witch doctor over smoking leaves. Caught words and phrases I hid behind my knees until I grew old enough to understand them.
Grandmother gave a piece of her soul to the Devil that day. The witch doctor wasn’t invited, still the Devil held fast to one of Mother’s heels, even after the baptismal water dripped down the tips of her hair, even after she sprinkled herbs for good luck over her satin wedding gown.
Do you promise to love and obey God the Father and Jesus the Son? Si. Do you promise to honor your husband? Si.
“Pobrecita mi hijita, te casaste con este gringo,” Grandmother cried.
Do you promise to leave behind the idols of your youth for the one and only true God? Si. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I remember it even before I was born.
Six years later, six dry years after she’d flown away from Colombia to my father’s home in America, she dragged me off the public bus and into the streets where newspapers and plastic cups and hotdog wrappers swirled in the air. This was the street Father never knew about. Wednesdays, when Mother’s lungs failed and she cried to Father she couldn’t drag herself to church, we walked the street of endless brick row houses lined with bottomless iron ladders and windows like small prisons. Cells for the wicked old women who peeked out of their dingy curtains.
The hideous woman behind the green door was on this street because she chopped off children’s ears when they didn’t listen to her. And the man who smoked two cigars on the stoop next door had been waiting two hundred years for his wife, smoking her cigar so it would be hot when she finally returned. A little boy my size had wheels on his shoes, and kept falling on his bleeding knees. The tales in my head gave me goose pimples, and I gripped Mother’s hand. The sky here was darker and the clouds hung lower than on the street where I lived. Even at five, I knew the people were wicked in this part of town because of the prison bar windows, and because men in hats sat on porch stoops smoking cigarettes, carefully guarding the people inside.
Wednesday, and we plodded to the witch doctor.
“You not tell your father, or Paul be cursed, Flaca.” Mother carried Paul on her hip and tied a long cloth sling over her shoulder to support him. His legs dangled past her thighs, limp and brown like sancocho de gallina. Paul was sick again, blue in the morning and violet at night. What the church couldn’t do for Paul on Sundays, the witch doctor tried to cure on Wednesdays.
The witch doctor was a woman married to an old chemistry professor. He answered the door in a cooking apron. His thick glasses made a deep dent in his nose, and he offered us a toothy smile and a ladle of warm, thick liquid he’d been stirring on the stove. His lips were pink and swollen like pig tongues.
His wife, the witch doctor, wore long dresses that rustled like the old cornhusks Mother strung together and hung in the kitchen window. Her long fingers dangled in the air like spider legs, and when she reached out to Mother, I wanted both to pull Mother away from the woman and to take her spidery hands into my own to examine them. I was afraid for Mother and curious about the witch doctor at the same time. Do you see her hands, Mother? Don’t let them crawl all over the baby.
Their house was the brick row house at the end of the street. I wondered what crime they’d committed, who they were hiding from, why the professor had walnuts for knuckles.
Mother sat with the witch doctor under the weeping willow, Paul wrapped around her waist, his head resting on her breast above her heart. I wasn’t allowed to hear the fortune, so I sat on the stairs and tried to read their lips, tried to hear their whispers singing. I tried to imagine the beating, rhythmic sound in her breast. The professor stirred chicken hearts on the kitchen stove, but the odor in the house smelled of attic dust, of linseed oil, cat hair, and boxes of clothes opened after years of heat and rain.
“Try this, Rebecka,” the professor said. He lifted the spoon and held it over his cupped hand. I didn’t like the smell, didn’t like the thought of small rubbery hearts rolling on my tongue. But Father told me never say no to an adult, don’t be rude, Rebecka. I looked back at Mother—she would rescue me—but I only saw a piece of her skirt as she closed the screen door to the back porch steps. I turned back to the professor and he held the spoon of broth in front of me.
“Taste,” he said. I couldn’t say yes, but no was forbidden. So I nodded, my eyes filling with tears and my chin trembling. I nodded yes, but squeezed my lips together. I hate Paul for bringing us here, I thought, and my eyes burned as my tears fell.
The professor’s lips peeled back over his big teeth and he laughed. He rubbed his round belly with his free hand, making small circles on the apron. He patted my head.
“Okay,” he said, and laughed again. “You don’t like my cooking? I have a caramel you will definitely like.”
~ excerpt from Song of the Orange Moons, pub date October 12, 2010.